The presidential run-off in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati between a pro-Beijing leader and an opposition candidate sympathetic to Taiwan is the most aggressive campaign in the country's history, according to former president Anote Tong.
The vote, scheduled for June 22, could open the door for Taiwan to reclaim the strategic ally it lost to China last year, with the opposition campaigning on a platform critical of the diplomatic switch.
Kiribati, the site of a mothballed Chinese space tracking station in the central Pacific, has a finely balanced parliament with loyalties evenly split between President Taneti Maamau and ally-turned-rival Banuera Berina, who broke from the government last year citing concerns over the switch.
"Primarily, it has been about the Taiwan-China issue," said Tong. "In my experience, it's the most aggressive campaign that I've seen," describing a bidding war of uncosted policies and combative claims over whether or not Kiribati will benefit from relations with Beijing.
Tong, who said he had been impartial since retiring from politics in 2016, oversaw a shift in Kiribati's ties from China to Taiwan during his first term in 2003.
"There are some strong feelings against China particularly with the very active participation of the Chinese diplomatic mission during the campaign," said Tong.
China's embassy in Kiribati (pronounced Kiribas) said China does not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries.
China's foreign ministry in Beijing said there had been rich results since the nations resumed diplomatic relations last year.
"China is willing to work with the Kiribati government, on the basis of the one China principle, to promote the continuous development of Sino-Kiribati ties, to help with the well-being of both countries people," the ministry said.
Kiribati received more than $4.2 million from China for "livelihood projects" in the weeks leading up to the vote, according to a Kiribati government statement.
The offices of the candidates Maamau and Berina did not respond to requests for comment.
Diplomatic sources say both Washington and Canberra are watching the election closely, given concerns about China's increased role in the Pacific.
"We took the Pacific for granted too long and didn't pay enough attention, giving China its opportunity," a senior Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, referring to Kiribati and the Solomon Island's decisions last year to recognise Beijing.
The U.S. embassy in Fiji, which oversees relations with Kiribati, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
BEIJING BUILDS CLOUT
Many Pacific island nations, long-aligned with the United States and its allies, have been forging closer ties with China in recent years amid a push by Beijing to increase its diplomatic and financial clout in the region.
China claims democratic Taiwan as its territory with no right to state-to-state ties.
Taiwan, which shares a robust yet unofficial relationship with the United States, now has only 15 formal allies left worldwide.
A member of the Kiribati parliament, who declined to be named because they were not authorised to speak to the media, said Kiribati would want to re-establish a working relationship with Taiwan if Berina wins.
"I believe Taiwan would be invited back; whether we take the next move of terminating relations with China remains to be seen," the member said.
Taiwan's government is also watching the election, but officials have cautioned against being overly optimistic a new president would move to quickly reinstate ties with the island.
Western intelligence agencies have privately expressed concern China has used and wants to use again Kiribati's space tracking station to watch U.S. missile and other weapons tests in the Pacific, security sources told Reuters.
China's Foreign Ministry told Reuters the station was only for "peaceful purposes", without elaborating.